Protect Yourself from the Sun this Growing Season

Summer means a lot of different things to different people. For some, it's a vacation from the books and papers. For others, like farmers, it can be the busiest time of the year. That being said, many farmers spend countless hours working in the summer sun, which can have serious implications if proper protection is not taken.

In fact, because of the amount of time farmers spend outside every day, they have an increased risk of developing skin cancer. In general, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and there are two main types, both related to ultraviolet (sun) exposure. Non-melanoma skin cancers are relatively common, but melanoma is a much more serious cancer, which can potentially metastasize and cause death.

Ever heard of a farmer's tan? Though it may be comical to look at, a farmer's tan is the result of significant sun exposure. And according to UnityPoint Health, sustaining five or more sunburns in a lifetime can increase the chance of developing melanoma by 80 percent.

"Farmers have a higher risk of developing skin cancer just based on the fact that their ultraviolet exposure is high, and ultraviolet exposure is a positive risk factor for the development of all types of skin cancer," said Dr. Lynn Cornelius, the chief of dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine and head of the melanoma multidisciplinary initiative at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Therefore just as farmers protect their crops from insects and other environmental factors, so too should they take precautions to protect themselves from the sun.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are more than 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer in more than 2 million people that will be diagnosed in the Unites States annually, and one person dies from melanoma each hour in the United States.

In an effort to protect against the sun's UV rays, Cornelius recommends applying a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher before working outside with a reapplication every two hours. Because UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes, it is advised to apply sunscreen before going outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days.

"Farmers are busy, busy people who are used to being out in the elements," Cornelius said. "They are not bothered by sunburns and other things we normally try to protect people from because they have their work to do and we understand that. However, sunscreens are very effective, and studies have shown that the use of sunscreen decreases the risk of development of all types of skin cancer."

In the summer time, the sun is not as intense the hours before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m., so any work done in direct sunlight is advised to be done during that time frame. In the middle of the day, it is best to use machinery with cabs or shades as they shield operators from UVB rays. However, Cornelius still advises farmers to use sunscreen while in the cab to shield against the UVA rays, which are not blocked by glass.     

Clothing can also aid in limiting exposure to UV rays. Long-sleeved shirts and pants provide protection, and light colors will keep you cooler. Clothing's effectiveness to protect against UV rays is indicated by UPF ratings. According to Cornelius, an average t-shirt has a UPF of 3-5. For extra protection, she advises the use of sun protective clothing which is specially designed to block both UVA and UVB rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests garments with a UPF of at least 30 for effective sun protection.

In addition, a hat with a brim can protect the ears and back of the neck from prolonged exposure. Sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection and lip balm with SPF 30 or higher will also protect eyes and lips from harmful rays.

In addition to prolonged sun exposure, there are a few traits that can contribute to skin cancer. People who have fair skin or skin that freckles, blond or red hair, or blue or green eyes have an increased risk of developing skin cancer. In addition, having a history of skin cancer in the family may also put a person at greater risk. However, anybody, regardless of race or family history, increases their risk by spending long hours in the sun.

According to the American Cancer Society, most cases of skin cancer can be successfully treated if found early. However, it only takes one serious sunburn to significantly increase risk for future skin cancer.

Those at higher risk of developing skin cancer, farmers specifically, should take extra care to monitor their skin and any moles regularly for signs of irregularity. After the age of 40, it is advised to have regular skin examinations from a doctor.

"Cancer rates have definitely gone up over the years," Cornelius said. "It's increasing at a high rate and interestingly enough the rates of melanoma are going up in two distinct populations. One is in younger adult women, which we think is related to tanning bed exposure. The other is in men 50 and older, where there is a huge spike in melanoma detection and development, which is relevant to the farming population."